By Suzanne Clemenz
Scripture: Luke 10: 1-11, 16-20
In the late 1960s, my father-in-law, Lorin Clemenz, early in his career of ministry as a United Methodist pastor, was serving a church in Gary, Indiana, at the height of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements and during an intense period of social and cultural change in the city. My father-in-law, who from now on I’ll just refer to as “Dad,” was trying to listen and understand and respond to the needs of the increasingly diverse community he was serving, and one of the things he chose to do to equip himself was participate in an urban immersive experience called The Plunge that was organized by the community activist Saul Alinsky. Alinsky was the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, and he had grown up in poverty in Chicago and become an advocate for racial and economic justice. In a nutshell, Dad, after receiving some preliminary training on how to handle himself during the experience, and having time to grow out his beard so that he could better pass as someone who lived on the streets, was dropped off in Chicago with nothing but the clothes on his back, and he would spend a week on the streets, all on his own.
He had to figure out where he was going to spend each night. Each day he sought out lines where day workers would huddle, hoping someone would hire him for a few hours so he could have money for food. One night he slept in a doorway. One day he went into a theatre and tried to spend several hours inside to warm up (it just happened to be the coldest week of the year when he did this), but he was noticed and told to get out. There was a mission downtown where he could get a bed at night, but he found that he had to attend worship service first (which made him quite angry, the way that faith was being forced on folks who were vulnerable), and then, before getting a bed, he was made to shower and also required to change clothes, and for overnight the only thing they gave him to wear was an ill-fitting T shirt – no underwear included – so that was pretty awkward. And finally, the night before the experience ended, while sleeping on a bench in a bus station, his glasses were stolen, and because Dad was blind as a bat without his glasses, he called my mother-in-law late that night to come pick him up. On the one hand, by the end of this experience, he literally couldn’t see anything. On the other hand, his eyes had been opened that week in ways he could not have foreseen.
This experience was life-changing for Dad. It deepened an empathy for folks who are vulnerable and an understanding of the forces that keep them vulnerable. He was able to really see them, and see them in the fullness of their humanity. Though he himself had grown up in rural poverty, he’d always had a roof over his head and food on the table. He had never before stood that close to desperation and entrenched inequality. He’d never needed to depend on the generosity of strangers. The experience also sharpened his sensitivity to the ways that faith can be misused to try to shape people. I also want to say that in sharing this story, I’m not voicing support for immersion experiences per se; I think they are complicated and depending on how they are carried out they can be exploitative; and also, if you are curious and go and Google “urban plunge,” these still exist but look nothing like this experience was in the ‘60s.
My Dad went out in Christian mission, vulnerably, not to effect change in others but to open himself to deeper understanding, to deeper compassion, and to grapple with what unconditional love and mercy looked like (or perhaps, didn’t look like) in his context. He had to put aside his own preferences, habits, and comforts. He was at the mercy of the people he encountered in the city. Would hospitality be extended to him? Would he be looked at through eyes of loving kindness? Would people see him and attend to him? Would they want the best for him? He didn’t know from moment to moment if he would encounter acceptance or face rejection. Would others see the face of Christ in him?
As I reflect on our gospel text, I wonder about the experience of the disciples as Jesus sends out the 72 to new places where they arrive as strangers. They’re told to travel with nothing; they’re to arrive vulnerable. And they’re instructed to go with the first person who takes them in – not to be on the lookout for nice accommodations or someone they think they might get along with. They are to graciously accept whatever lodging and food is offered, and in doing so to show honor and respect for their host. In doing so they are extending peace to their hosts; their purpose is to be fully present to them, to see them as children of God, to express genuine care for their wellbeing. In every house they enter, they are to interact with folks this way. Interestingly, Jesus tells them that their words and peaceful presence will be received only if there is already a person of peace in that house. And there’s a sense that when persons of peace, who see the God-spark in each other and who encounter each other in vulnerability, come together, there is no limit to the healing and restoration of minds, bodies, and communities that can take place through the power of the Spirit that works within them.
The disciples come back astounded by the healing and transformation that takes between them and these new people they’ve met who are seeking and living in peace. I’m really struck by the fact that this going out in vulnerability seems to be mostly about the way it shapes the disciples in trust and faith in God’s power and in God’s way of peace. The focus is not on the people they’re going out to meet. This text is about the spiritual development of the disciples, and how God through his grace prepares them and works healing within and between them and others, when their encounters are marked by peace and vulnerability.
The 72 disciples are also told that they are just as likely to encounter households in which a spirit of peace is not present; they are going to encounter plenty of places where they aren’t welcomed. That’s just the way it is. And they simply aren’t to stay. They aren’t instructed in any persuasive techniques to make the message of peace take hold. They are to shake the dust off their feet as they leave, perhaps because they aren’t to carry any residue of frustration or disappointment or judgment with them, and as they leave they are still to speak words of peace, and to tell everyone that God is near, that God is with them, that the goodness of God is already within them and among them, if only they could see it.
If only they could see it. If only they could see the beautiful, precious image of God in themselves and in others. If only they could see the goodness breaking in around them. Friends, do you have eyes to see the God-spark in everyone you encounter? Where do you see the goodness of God on display in our world today? Where do you see the Spirit moving, creating, renewing, restoring? As Christians we know that goodness is not about feeling good, but about the state of our souls and our communities when we are in right relationship with God and with each other. Where are you seeking and focusing? Can you see and sense God’s goodness coming to be? Or, if you are struggling right now, what are the stories of hope and healing that inspire and ground you? What are your experiences and memories of restoration and reconciliation, of God’s saving grace right when you have needed it, and how do you rest in those? It’s important that you rest in and lean into those places and spaces of grace so that when you have an opportunity this week to step out in vulnerability, when you have an opportunity to extend full and genuine peace to another – because I know you will have these opportunities – you’ll be able to be vulnerable and extend peace, and do it freely and abundantly, and also free of concern with whether or not your peace is returned to you.
“In the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet in the way of peace.” Luke 1: 78-79
As each of you go out this week, go with this prayer from St. Teresa of Avila:
Christ has no body but yours, no hands, no feet on earth but yours.
Yours are the eyes with which he looks compassionately on this world.
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good.
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Go, knowing that God’s peace is in you, is with you, and awaits you.
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